Sunday, April 01, 2012

White Elephant Blogathon 2012: Preying for a Trash Masterpiece

BROOKLYN, N.Y.—[This is my contribution to the White Elephant Blogathon. What is the White Elephant Blogathon, you may be wondering? Well, here are some details.]

After accidentally missing the deadline to submit a title for last year's edition of the White Elephant Blogathon, I made it a point to participate this year.

Considering how many people have or have not wasted their time watching crappy movies assigned to them for this blogathon, why did I want to commit myself to it this year? Probably because I got a doozy of an assignment two years ago when I contributed to this online event, a film directed by Death Wish auteur Michael Winner called Scream for Help (1984), and one so bad in so many genuinely fascinating ways that, yes, I would actually go so far as to place it in the "so bad it's good" pantheon reserved for other legendary pieces of celluloid waste like Ed Wood's Plan 9 from Outer Space. (I'm serious when I say that it really is something to see; I refer you all to my review of it here.)

I was hoping that lightning might strike twice this time around, that I might get a chance to cut my teeth on something that was dreadful in ways that might actually inspire something like actual critical analysis. Did it happen?

Well...yes and no—mostly no, I'm afraid, though it does have one moment towards the very end that almost makes sitting through the rest worth your trouble.

This year, I was assigned to watch an action film called Deadly Prey (1987). You can tell this is from the 1980s right from the get-go with a wide shot of a silhouetted figure running up a hill and pumping a gun in the air, which leads into an opening-credits sequence that intercuts title cards with shots of all manner of weapons being loaded one at a time. 

An opening suspense sequence sets up the premise of director David A. Prior's film. A bunch of mercenaries—led by jacked-up sunglasses-wearing second-in-command Lt. Thornton (Fritz Matthews)—are hunting after some random chubby guy, looking to kill him. They eventually accomplish their mission, but not after the guy resourcefully knocks out one of the mercenaries; Thornton eventually kills this member, presumably for his failure to measure up to this covert army unit's high standards.

The next scene fleshes this opening scene out some more. We are introduced to Thornton's superior, Col. Hogan (David Campbell); we learn that the chubby guy was some random dude picked off the street for, essentially, target practice for these mercenaries-in-training. Now they need a new victim for their game. That's where our hero, Mike Danton (played by Ted Prior, David A. Prior's brother), comes in.

Before we get to Danton, however, allow me to draw attention to two things I noticed in these first two sequences:

1. Was some of the dialogue of this film recorded in post-production and synchronized after the fact? It sure sounds like it to my ears; there is a disembodied quality to some the line readings that sounds like something I usually hear in, say, old Italian films, when post-synchronized sound was the norm. So it may not just be the acting itself that's bad. (Was the budget for this film so low Prior couldn't even afford to record sound directly throughout the whole production?)

2. There's nothing technically wrong with the editing in the opening suspense sequence...and yet, strangely, the filmmaking still feels like pure amateur hour. There are barely any shots in which the predators and their prey occupy the same frame; for all I know, Prior could have shot the mercenaries and the chubby guy in two entirely different parts of this forest. Heck, even I've done that! Years ago, back when I was living in central New Jersey, I picked up a video camera one time and tried to make my own slasher flick, discovering quickly that, on a budget of zero dollars, all I needed to do to suggest someone getting killed was just juxtapose a shot of a sharp object with the pained expression on a victim's face. (And because I was under the influence of the Friday the 13th films at the time, I destroyed a fair amount of strawberries to simulate blood splattering.) It's the Kuleshov effect at its finest! It would be miraculous if it turned out the auteur behind this film and Killer Workout (1987) knew who Lev Kuleshov was; alas, when you see mercenaries shooting at the chubby victim and, in the next shot, hear no gunfire as the victim falls to the ground in pain, you realize that perhaps there are limits to Prior's grasp of continuity after all.

All right, back to Mike Danton.

Danton is introduced as an ordinary man struggling to get out of his bed (a water bed, by the way; people actually sleep on those things?) and taking out the trash before he is randomly kidnapped by two of Hogan's men for this deadly venture. Naturally, though, these men have no idea what they've just gotten into; Danton, it turns out, is a Vietnam veteran who has a way with, say, turning tree branches into weapons and staying alive by eating worms and cooking rats.

In essence, he's John Rambo redux, and Deadly Prey could be seen a low-rent variation on First Blood (1982), even if its good-versus-evil setup places it in more of an uncomplicated Rambo: First Blood, Part II (1985) mindset than in the more intriguingly ambiguous mold of Ted Kotcheff's original. (There's one shot of Danton pointing a machine gun up in the air and firing off a bunch of rounds that recalls a similar shot towards the end of Part II, except without Stallone's howl of testosterone-fueled frustration while he does it.) And just as Rambo's last name reminded Pauline Kael of his "namesake" Arthur Rimbaud, Danton's last name recalls Georges Jacques Danton, the Frenchman who is often credited for being one of the pivotal figures of the French Revolution. You could say that the Danton of Deadly Prey initiates his own revolution against Col. Hogan, Lt. Thornton and the rest of this sadistic band of mercenaries—though this Danton is hardly the more morally ambiguous Danton of French history (Georges Jacques was eventually convicted of financial corruption and killed by guillotine).

Beyond all that, alas, there isn't a whole lot to say about the rest of the film once Danton begins to fight back against his captors, one by one. There's little sense of geography or continuity underpinning the action sequences, and thus precious little in the way of coherence or sustained suspense; Danton just seems to materialize whenever and wherever he wants in that forest. Deadly Prey has the requisite macho action-movie misogyny, featuring a mere two female characters—Danton's helpless wife Jaimy (Suzanne Tara) and mercenary super-bitch Sybil (Dawn Abraham)—both of whom eventually meet ignominious ends.

It also features two legendary Hollywood actors among the cast: Actors' Studio veteran Cameron Mitchell, as Jaimy's policeman father; and former teen heartthrob Troy Donahue, as the rich backer of Col. Hogan's mercenary operation. Putting aside the predictable and not particularly interesting question of why these two actors bothered to appear in this junk in the first place, I would like to point out that, though the role these actors play in Deadly Prey both amount to glorified cameos, both are given top billing in the opening credits! Not even Glenn Ford was granted that honor when he appeared in the 1981 slasher film Happy Birthday to Me! Mitchell and Donahue do have one scene together, in which Mitchell delivers a speech decrying Donahue and the rest of his rich, inhumane ilk before blowing him away; maybe David A. Prior found the prospect of putting these two famous actors together exciting, but unfortunately, there isn't a whole lot in that scene worth writing home about, other than the fact that Mitchell brings more convincing emotion to that scene than Ted Prior brings to any one line reading as the hero.

And onward to that aforementioned one memorable moment of Deadly Prey. Should I spoil it? Let me put it this way: This may be the only film where you will see a man's arm being used as a bludgeoning weapon after it has been dismembered from his body. It's the only time in this cheesefest that I found myself laughing out loud, and possibly the only bit of inspired awfulness in what is an otherwise just plain bad, bad movie—and not even all that fun bad, either.